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HIS ROAD HOME
By ANNA RICHLAND
Special Forces medic Rey Cruz needs to find a fiancée, fast, to avoid insulting a matchmaking Afghan warlord. Finding a picture online of a girl he barely knew back home, he fakes an engagement photo, thinking no one else will see it. But when Rey is injured while rescuing a local boy, the image no one was supposed to see goes viral.
Seattle marine biologist Grace Kim is shocked to find out she’s engaged. When she’s offered a plane ticket to visit her “fiancé,” she takes it, looking for the answer to one question: Why did he lie? A traumatic brain injury means Rey can’t tell her, until they figure out how to communicate. Touched by Rey’s funny texts and determination, Grace offers friendship—a big step for someone who prefers whales to most company.
And when Rey is finally sent home, Grace agrees to help him drive his classic car cross-country over Thanksgiving—a once-in-a-lifetime road trip that leads to what feels like real love. In front of his friends and family, she plays the caring fiancée, but what place will Grace have in Rey’s new life once he’s ready to be on his own again?
Released October 13, 2014
HIS ROAD HOME
By ANNA RICHLAND
Editor’s Note: Since this is a PG-13 site, some language has been edited.
“Dostum’s willing to provide twenty men for fighting season,” Abdullah explained their host’s soliloquy, “but first he wants a more permanent relationship with Americans.”
“What the f(*k does he think thirteen years and five hundred billion dollars are? No one-night hookup.” In contrast to his words, Cruz smiled. He’d shared tea with the old man often enough to know the game.
“I’ll rephrase that.”
“Why we haul you around, amigo.”
As the terp listened to the reply, his shoulders tightened and his eyes flicked from the dozen tribesmen squatting around the compound, to the weapons stacked throughout the open courtyard and to the gate. Abdullah’s body language was subtle, but Cruz lived or died by noticing a trickle of gravel or a faraway glint of sun on metal.
When Abdullah began to translate, Cruz was ready for word of renewed insurgency or allied losses. “It has been my privilege to work with your fine American team, and Allah blessed me with two healthy sons last year due to the generous and great American doctor you brought. I desire to repay the blessing.”
Not the bad news he’d been expecting, but his interpreter still looked tense.
“I understand Sergeant Cruz is unmarried.” Abdullah shared the tribal leader’s words. “I humbly offer him one of my daughters.”
While Dostum watched like a one-eyed, toothless cupid cradling an AK-47 instead of a bow and arrow, Cruz forced himself to obey the rules for breathing before a five-mile high parachute jump: inhale steadily, no gulps, no matter what instinct urged, no matter that he could barely keep his lips from puckering with rejection. “That’s—”
“Shut up.” Abdullah’s voice quavered. “He’s giving you a gift that matters a hell of a lot to him and in his mind, doing you a favor. Half these men can’t afford to get married, and if you throw his daughter in his face, the insult might make them open fire.”
The air stopped moving except for two flies close to Cruz’s cheek. An insider attack: when a local soldier snaps and kills his allies. Green-on-blue, briefings called it.
“Get me out of it.” He missed his former teammate Wulf’s interpreting skill like a guy missed his nuts. He disliked giving so much power to someone the team had known for six months but saw no choice. “Whatever you have to say.” He tried to smile, but his lips were too dry to peel away from his teeth.
Undershirts always soaked through, the price of wearing more than forty pounds of protective gear, but now sweat chilled on his skin. The sun was a joke, making those weapons shiny enough to reflect glare, but not providing a bit of warmth.
The two men talked while he watched a fighter in a striped vest, the man whose hands were closest to his rifle. Target one if this went to hell. Shoot, roll left to cover Abdullah and count on the rest of the team to roar through the gate and clean the courtyard. One on twelve for ninety seconds, survivable only on paper.
He didn’t have to field test the plan. His terp pulled a save from the faded Tigers hat that never left his head.
“Relax, lover boy.” Abdullah flung an arm across his shoulders.
Cruz wasn’t sure whose pits gave off the worst funk; his, the man hugging him or the two Afghans bringing them tea, flatbread and lentil paste.
“Told Dostum you’re engaged to a nice girl back home—”
An Afghan with a miraculous mouth of teeth pounded Cruz on the back to dislodge the bread stuck in his windpipe choking him. “What?”
“And because American law doesn’t allow two wives, you regretfully cannot accept this honor, but you’ll bring gifts next week to show how much you appreciate his generosity.”
“Great. We’ll haul a pallet of rice, but don’t let him think he’s getting weapons.” Wily bastard might have set up the incident to bag more rocket-propelled grenade launchers. “If proud papas start offering me wives but settle for swag, I know who to blame.”
Abdullah raised his hands, palms out as if to deny his responsibility, then laughed as he turned them into finger-pistols pointed right at Cruz.
“By the way, he expects a photo. He wonders what kind of woman American soldiers marry.”
“No problem.” A fake fiancée. He’d almost rather risk the business end of an AK-47.
A week later, keyboard clicks were the only sound in the Special Ops ready room at Camp Cadwalader. Most of the team was enjoying hot chow before they bugged out for six days, but Kahananui and his laptop had stayed with Cruz.
“Found a fiancée yet? It’s surf-n-turf night.” His best friend unplugged and stretched, ready to desert him for the dining facility’s best meal.
“Deciding between three or four.” The skin and alcohol displayed by women in his social networks would offend Dostum, and he’d dangle from a Chinook by his short hairs before he’d pretend to be engaged to Brittney. She was probably banging SEAL Team Six. More power to her, but he wasn’t using her picture. Last winter he’d claimed brains was his new chick criteria, but of course he’d gone right back to hump-bunnies while home at Fort Campbell.
“You got nothing.” The big Hawaiian stared over his shoulder at the thumbnail photos.
“Give me a picture of Jewel.” Like the rest of the team except for Bama Boy and Abdullah, Kahananui advertised matrimonial bliss.
“No can do, brah. One look at my lady, and Dostum would know your skinny ass wasn’t man enough for her.”
“Whipped.” Married guys never helped a buddy with lady trouble, even trouble with imaginary ladies. Worse, they got laid more often than he did.
“Roger that.” Kahananui gave him a thumb and finger shaka sign and left.
His stomach begged to follow, but he had to identify a plausible fiancée. This trip included embedded reporters accompanying the team, so he couldn’t use a porn star or a celebrity, and picking a random army woman had at least a dozen downsides. He needed a civilian.
Twenty-nine years old, and he didn’t have a female friend to ask for help.
Given he’d spent eleven years in the service, mostly in training or deployed, he quit thinking and searched photos from Pateros High.
His older sister’s former volleyball team provided an ideal candidate: Grace Kim. He’d heard she went to the University of Washington for a science degree, maybe a Ph.D. His hometown’s population was less than seven hundred, but he’d bet she hadn’t known him. She’d been older and always studying. A girl like her wouldn’t remember a Mexican kid who picked apples after school and dropped out to enlist.
Grace Kim, his fingers typed. The internet offered the curious so much more than porn. Imagine, she worked at the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. The white blouse and navy suit in her biographical photo looked more serious than those old team knee socks. Her dark hair, an even length around her chin, made her face look rounder. She appeared smart, successful and sober, the type of fiancée whose picture wouldn’t insult Dostum.
He mashed her photo and one of his promotion packet portraits in full uniform into a digital layout, then added images of rings and roses to make it almost as elaborate as the celebration banners Afghans made, although without the gold script. The color printer the team had liberated from heroin smugglers last summer did a bang-up job on photos.
Using a blue pen, he personalized the corner: For my dearest Reynaldo. I remember walking under the apple blossoms with you. A woman with a doctorate wouldn’t draw a smiley face like Brittney had on her one and only letter, so he finished with Love, Grace.
Fastest engagement in history. Cheapest, too. Didn’t have to buy a single dinner.
Anna lives with her quietly funny Canadian husband and two less quiet children in a century-old house in Seattle. Like the heroine of her debut paranormal romantic suspense novel, First to Burn, Anna joined the army to pay tuition, a decision that led to a career on four continents.
She donates a portion of her book proceeds to two charities: the Fisher House Foundation, which provides free accommodations near military hospitals for families of wounded soldiers in the US and Great Britain, and Doctors Without Borders, which delivers emergency medical care in more than sixty crisis zones world-wide.
To sign up for Anna’s newsletter and find out about her next release, The Second Lie (The Immortal Vikings, Book Two), visit her website at www.annarichland.com
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